Historic Inscriptions in the Shenandoah Valley

In the thousands of names and dates inscribed on the walls of Virginia’s Grand Caverns I see a giant puzzle, a sort of tapestry of American culture, two hundred years in the making.

Some names, dating as early as 1808, were engraved in the form of type-set letters, the red walls carefully scarred to reveal a white rock underneath. Some names were hastily scribbled in pencil, or cut quickly into the surface by the edge of a knife, forming large loopy letters that indicate little concern for penmanship. There are last names without first names, and first names without last names, as well as names of towns and cities from across Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region. This subterranean canvas also bears signatures of foreign visitors. Rock inscriptions at historic sites in the Shenandoah Valley provide clues to the development of the region, to its settlement and to changes in society. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States is there such a combination of age of European settlement, clear traditions of inscription, and preserved surfaces (especially limestone cave walls) with legible writing.


Local caves were discovered and investigated in the late 18th century, but the discovery of Grand Caverns (then called Weyer’s Cave) in the first decade of the 19th century, provided the surface for a community signature board.  Stories of the cave’s discovery are conflicting. Most sources agree that Bernard Weyer discovered the cave while looking for lost traps, as an animal he track led him to the cave’s entrance.  Some sources claim the date of discovery was 1804, while others agree that it was 1806.  Regardless, by 1808 the cave opened for tourists, and both men and women visited.  Cave inscriptions dating from the first half of the nineteenth century tend to be the most neatly engraved, indicating the patient mentality of the visitors. Printed sources confirm that visitors tarried long. After a visit to the cave, a certain Calvin Jones wrote in 1815 that he had stayed underground from two to three hours. A contributor to a newspaper “O.” , writing in 1835, declared that he had spent “nearly the whole day” in the cave, while a visitors in 1837 and 1838 spoke of tour lasting six hours and three hours, respectively.  In a popular article from 1853, written in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Virginia Illustrated, David Hunter Strother, described a visit of eight to ten hours. Visitors to the cave in the Antebellum took little concern for presevation. Indeed, they fired pistols below ground, hammered away at stalagtites, collected crystals.



E.W. Jones of North Carolina, 1837. The precision in forming letters is common to inscriptions from before the Civil War. The clarity of the inscriptions at Grand Caverns owes to the nature of the cave walls, which are limestone, with calcium carbonate layers and red iron deposits

Most early inscriptions at Grand Caverns begin with a name, followed by the full date. If the month is included, it is generally abbreviated. These inscriptions include a preponderance of upper-case letters, possibly because it is easier to carve larger, straighter lines. First names are given as initials, which saved time and effort in the engraving process. Last names are always included in this period, and they are written in full, demonstrating the relative the family. The historian David Hackett Fischer explains that in colonial Virginia, last names were often used as forenames, which served to  “reinforce connections between families and strengthen solidarity of the elite.”  Last names also reflected status and power.

Printed sources and rock inscriptions indicate that the earliest visitors to Weyer’s Cave tended to be men on adventure seeking nature, but by the 1830s, women were frequest guests as well, although generally accompanied by men. Thomas Jefferson epitomizes the early gentleman-adventurer, who in his Notes on Virginia, described and drew a plan of Madison’s Cave, a grotto adjacent to Grand Caverns.  This founding period of cave tourism in the area also gave rise to a need to name physical features of the cave. The “rooms” of the caves and their features took names from the classical world, names that were known to an elite reading public. There was, for example, a Cleopatra’s Needle, Athony’s Pillar, Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob’s Tea-Table, Jacob’s Ice-House and a “Temple of Solomon”. Over time, the names of some of the rooms changed. By 1828, for example, there was a “Washington Room”, celebrating an American addition to the great men of myth.  The naming system indicates that a literate, elite class was largely responsible for giving meaning to the underground tour.

At Grand Caverns, I was able to locate an inscription by  Jacob Mohler, the first owner and proprietor of the cave. This inscription can be compared to his signature on file at the Rockingham County Courthouse to demonstrate something of the nature of historic inscriptions. For example, while the shape of the letters shows high consistency between the two forms, for the inscription, Mohler gave extra effort to the first three letters of his last name, forming them in a typeset font. The initial “M” is clearly set and differs from the free-flowing “M” of his signature. The last three letters, “l, e, r” are carved in a cursive and bear an uncanny resemblance to his penned name. The undated inscription omits Mohler’s first name, but a legal signature on an 1825 marriage bond agreement required both first name and surname.


The early visitors to leave inscriptions in Shenandoah Valley caves also included tourists, who travelled great distances with the goal of seeing as many sites as possible in a short period of time. By mid-century, travel for health and leisure became more common. The sublime Niagara Falls, for example, became a site of mass tourism, as it offered a vision for the Romantic Movement. Americans developed a cultural identity partly by seeking out natural wonders of the landscape. As Weyer’s Cave drew on this Romantic Movement, it also became a site of mass visitation. During the proprietorship of Jacob Mohler, the cave hosted an annual “Great Illumination and Ball” complete with a band, 2,000 candles, and scores of visitors. According to James S. Buckingham, an upper class Englishman who was present for the first illumination in 1839, the events at the cave were so rowdy that he desired a “quiet Indian raid.”

Printed documents signified officiality, and rock inscriptions with fonts like common typeset indicate that the inscribers yearned for the permanence and official sanction of legal or business documents. At mid-century, letterheads on business stationary were carefully engraved in styles that appealed to people’s desire to appear official. Even in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there are examples of Shenandoah Rock inscriptions demonstrating a skill and patience unseen in the twentieth century. Humpback Rock (elevation 3080 ft.), is a prominent feature along the Appalachian Trail near a gateway through the Shenandoah mountains between Charlottesville and Staunton. On a hike to the summit of Humpback Rock the oldest inscription I was able to locate dated to May 21, 1875. Inscriptions at the site were uncommon in the 19th century, but became more popular by the middle

of the twentieth century, as recreational hikers left their marks.  The longest inscription at Humpback Rock, , is a carefully engraved:

S.A. BaLsLEy

May THE 2nd 1875

The superscript portion of the signature is no longer legible. Samuel Balsley was a local resident, and may have required multiple trips to the site to chisel his name.

What is missing from the inscriptions and stories from this period is also a reflection of the society which produced them. There are no poems, for example, or sexual remarks on the walls of Grand Caverns. Nothing dating from before the Civil War remains that is intentionally disrespectful or explicit. This may, of course, be a selection bias, since later owners could have removed inappropriate writings. It appears however  that inscriptions from the period of pride consistently stressed permanence, clarity, the importance of last names, individual identity, and communal origin.

Melrose Cave, a former commercial cave in Rockingham County contains many inscriptions from Civil War soldiers. Members of the Archaeological Society of Virginia have advised me to avoid publishing information on private, non-commercial caves, to protect their location from potential vandals. However, with the permission of the owner of Melrose Cave, and because much information about the cave is already publicly available, I have chosen not to hide the identity of this cave. Melrose Cave has long been known as a site of Civil War action. Local newspaper articles from the 1930s report that a recent survey Melrose had recorded some 212 signatures of “warriors.” Unless the inscriptions were much clearer in the 1930s that they are at present, there must have been a significant amount of guesswork and estimation that went into this list. Of the 212 signatures recorded, the local Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy found 8 belonging to Confederate soldiers. New electric lighting was installed in the cave in the late 1920s, as it was developed as a tourist site. But locals were displeased to note what the electric light revealed: most of the soldiers’ inscriptions were made by Union men. A newspaper article explained this disparity by noting that the “swift” General “Stonewall

” Jackson did not allow his men time to carve their names in caves. A more likely explanation is that for Union soldiers adventuring outside of their home states, inscriptions were made to claim control of new territory, not so much like tourists of past generations, but in a manner more similar to modern “tagging” in graffiti.


A flag at Melrose Cave appears to be the Stars and Bars common to Confederate flags, with what may be two letters in the upper left corner. The letters might be “VA” although that was not a common flag. It is similar, however, to the flag of the 25th Virginia Infantry Regiment, which has three stripes and a single star with ‘Virginia” written clockwise around the star.

The soldier’s claim on territory through inscription reflected not only  individual  control of space, but also had social overtones.  In Melrose Cave, there is a prevalence of engraved flags, including both the Stars and Stripes, and the Stars and Bars. An early flag inscription in the cave must have served as inspiration for later inscribers. On a visit to Melrose, I documented five examples of the stars and stripes, although there likely were additional examples that have faded away. In each preserved instance, the flag flies to the right of the flag pole, and the stars are in the upper-left of the flag. One is made with seven roughly parallel lines (thereby making six spaces in between for the 13 stripes). Another flag, rising above the inscription of W.P. Hucus, is a flag in motion, again unfurled to the right. The flag may originally have had clear stripes, but erosion or vandalism has dulled the image. Another is engraved in a brown and white wall and is a rough Stars and Stripes with a short pole. Again the flag flies to the right. A fourth flag, made of twelve engraved horizontal lines, shows that soldiers were not always particularly careful in creating accurate images. A fifth flag, the poorest representation of the lot, demonstrates this further. It has a clear vertical pole with eleven scarred horizontal lines and no attempt to box off a starred corner. The diversity of images is a reflection of the relative artistic talent of the soldiers, as well as an indication of their attitudes. Most of the flags, for example, appear to have been carved in relative haste.  An additional flag may be a “Stars and Stripes” or a “Stars and Bars,” but it has been damaged by water erosion.



U.S. Shield

These flags are peculiar as symbols of national identity, arising in a period of national crisis. Once again, Union soldiers can be seen to be claiming Southern territory, marking it for the Union. Elsewhere, there is a shield of the U.S. The shield is a fairly accurate representation, with a solid top border, and vertical lines. In the center are the letters “US.” An early 20th century postcard shows the shield in another light. In this image it is clear that a flag flies from the top of the shield and there are flags on the top corners. A newspaper clipping from the Daily News-Record from 18 June 1929, claims the image includes bugles, which may be seen in the marking below the shield. Also at Melrose Cave, a single Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia competes with the “Stars and Stripes.” This might be one of the last flags raised by the Confederacy to still fly. It is missing its thirteen stars, and the angled lines were clearly carved with little concern to contain them within the square outline of the flag.


An author from 1937 claimed that there was a charcoal portrait of President Lincoln made on the wall of Melrose Cave dating to April 1862. A newspaper article from 1934 confirms this and adds that there was an American eagle carving as well. In my visit to the cave, I was unable to locate either image.

Union soldiers’ signatures in Melrose Cave include an initial and a last name, like inscriptions of tourists in the previous generation. But soldiers’ inscriptions also often include demonstrations of common unit identity through an additional line including the inscriber’s state and regiment number. At Melrose Cave, many of the soldiers’ inscriptions are from Ohio regiments passing through the valley. “O.V.I.” is a common inscription, standing for “Ohio Voluntary Infantry.”  Examples include “1862 L.G. Lester, 4th Ohio Reg.”,  “ J. Hollabaugh, Co. A., 4th Regt. OVI, 1862”, “Thomas Cool, Co. K. 14 Regt. Ind. Ap. 29th 1862”, “Harry Fisk, Co. A, 7th Ind.”,  “W.J. Grimwold, C.A. 4 Reg. OHIO VI, Apr. 1862”,  “T. Gillet, A. 7th. O.”    “W.P. Hucus, Co. C., 8th Reg., O.V.I.” , “J.McAdams, Co D 7th Ohio”.  Some are written apparently with black ink on the surface, such as “W. Ho[gand?] Co. C. 8 Regt. OVI”, and “[John?] Sohermen Co. C. 4. R. O.V.I,  [Fred?] Kenton Hardin., [Dou ntx.?] Ohio, Aprill. 28. 1862.”  In one instance, it appears that a descendent many have visited the cave and carved a signature underneath. “E.P. Shephard, Oberlio, Ohio” and “L.G. Wilder, May 4th, 1862, C. 7th O.V.I.” are together circled while “W. SHEPARD, 6-5-22, Wash.” is found below.  Soldiers’ inscriptions at Grand Caverns also include reference to the regiment and home state of the inscriber.

In Winchester, graffiti from imprisoned Union soldiers covers the wall of the old courthouse, now the Old Courthouse Civil War Museum. Union prisoners at the Winchester, Virginia, courthouse found more time to make inscriptions.  Paint covers most of the walls.  The inscriptions are in pencil, primarily, and made in cursive with a quick hand. A smoother implement (the pencil) and more time to pass led to more extensive inscriptions and to drawings in addition to writing. One image is a horse-headed soldier holding a gun with a bayonet. Another is a bearded man in a suit, and a third is a winged shield labeled “artillery.” This must be only a portion of the graffiti hidden under the walls, which the owners of the courthouse recovered sometime in the years after the war.

One angled inscription reads:

  1. L. Hicky

Co. B. 13th Maine


Some used initials instead of a full first name. Pencils and a smooth white surface allowed for more creativity and easier addition of information. The museum showcases an anonymous inscription carved into the northeast wall of the courthouse’s second floor.  The soldier carved in capital letters, with some spelling mistakes.
















And then with the soldier’s final swoop on the hand from right to left on the final Y, he carries the line through a full swing of his arm.In another location in the courthouse is a return to a typeset font, this time carefully penciled with the use of an object as a ruler.

While soldiers were inscribing in caves, churchgoers in the Valley gathered with songbooks. Under the name “Susan F. Garber, November 29th, 1863,” a poem penciled into a an songbook reads:

The grass is green, the rose is red.

Hear this my name when I am dead.

When I am dead & in my grave & rotten

These few lines will tell my name.

When by my friend I am forgotten.

With the same date, but on a different page, is a poem by Sarah K. Garber. “When absent love oh think of me, When absent love I think of thee.” With death on the mind, inscriptions likely became more of a form of remembrance than before.

Punctuated by the Civil War, the regional inscription traditions continued and grew in the second half of the nineteenth century. Paralleling the world of cave inscriptions, greater access to consumer goods coincided with less attentive care given to each action.Through the 1880s most book front-page inscriptions are in pen. Over time these signatures become increasingly sloppy, and penciled signatures appear in the 1890s. As the relative costs of books decreases and book ownership becomes more common, inscriptions become less common and are made with less care. Inscriptions in books benefitted from the ease of writing and therefore could carry longer messages, such as the aforementioned poems. Cave inscriptions, meanwhile, were painstakingly slow to produce; therefore, the message was limited. For this reason, we find little or no poetry on the walls.

More could be said when writing on a surface with pencil or pen.  Highland County is just outside the Shenandoah Valley, but culturally connected to it. There, the white-painted pine boards that formed the interior wall of the New Hampden Mill served as a graffiti wall, where visitors over the years were welcome to contribute their name or message. Donated to the area historical society in 2013, pieces of these walls are now on display at the Highland County Museum, where visitors are asked to “Look close and see what names you can make out.”  The earliest inscriptions date to the 1880s. Some contributions were math problems, perhaps customers working out their bill. Throughout, full names could be used, since there was little concern that the activity was illicit. The graffiti charts specific events in the area’s history as well. For example, a pencil inscription by Dennis Wimer of Monterey, Virginia, from September 27, 1941, notes that he visited the mill “While in C.C.C. Camp at Hot Springs, Va.” Wimer also included his group identity: “Company 3359, N.F. 25.” The mill clearly had its share of visitors, some from outside the region. While the tradition appears to have peaked in the 1930s and 1940s, just before the mill ceased operation, signatures from recent years indicate that the tradition was resumed at a later date. Relatives of the mill’s owner, Rexroad (also spelled Rexrode), returned in later years to leave their marks as well. The key point here is that graffiti can serve a positive social purpose, build community, and connect people across space and time in a common activity.

When inscriptions are illicit acts against authority, they are graffiti. Graffiti is vandalism. At some point in the history of Grand Caverns and other sites in the Shenandoah Valley inscriptions became graffiti, and were banned. There does not appear to be a clear date when this change happened; rather, the growing aversion to graffiti unfolded gradually over time, was fully developed by the 1950s, and reached its most denunciatory posture in the 1980s. Meanwhile, a number of changes occurred in the way inscriptions were made and in the contents of their messages. There is a transition, for example, from patient carvers to impatient tourists, as visitors spend less time marveling at the cave’s features. At Grand

Caverns, early inscribers had complete walls of flat surface to carve their names. As the best writing surfaces became full of names, twentieth century visitors began putting their names on less accessible surfaces. Names also began to cluster near the entrance of the cave, where many are written in pencil on white rock. The move to the front of the cave may further reflect impatience or the desire to leave a name behind without venturing further into the cave, unlike the inscriptions of professional speleologists, which have historically been used to mark the furthest penetration points in a cave.

Nineteenth century American inscriptions


generally include only names and dates. In the first half of the twentieth century, inscriptions were less likely to include place names. Identities tied to community faded, and inscribers sought new forms of self-expression and found their id

entity in the diversity of their artistic creations. The inscriptions began to incorporate symbols, and they became bigger and brasher. Inscriptions in the late twentieth century also adapt earlier writings, add to them, communicate with them, or even destroy them.

In Grand Caverns, inscriptions essentially cease with a ban on graffiti in the mid-20th century. But with the addition of Natural Chimneys, Humpback Rock, and other investigation sites, we can see the continuation of inscription traditions up to the current year. Natural Chimneys is a 120-feet high limestone structure that has long been a tourist site in Augusta County, Virginia. Caves near Natural Chimneys have ins

criptions visible from the 1840s and 1850s. These, like those in Grand Caverns, include last names and full dates. The trend in the modern inscriptions found there is toward comedic writings, casual names, and unrevealed identities. A carved “Redneck 01” is indicative of this trend.  There is also greater creativity, more symbols, and attempts to stand out from the crowd. Here we find a “Jenni 2013” in which a 5-pointed star stands in as the dot above the “i.”  There is a “Mary Jane” followed by an asterisk. First names frequently stand alone with no last name, date, or further message. But there are also personal messages of a kind not found in early periods: “1978-2001 live like jay” followed by a heart.

Love has long since replaced pride or group identity as a primary concern of the artist. And love might not be as long lasting. In one nearby sequence of inscriptions “B+W,” “ J+J,” and “C+D” are all scratched out, as if marking the destructive end of relationships. Another inscription at Natural Chimneys is a heart with an arrow

through it, the initials RE, and the date 7-1-05. We even see modern Internet slang “yolo” for “you only live once.” In Grand Caverns, similar inscriptions from the twentieth century appear. For example, there is a “Peggy+Ricky” with a symbol of a heart. It probably never crossed the mind of someone in the early 19th century to leave such a message.

Twentieth century inscriptions at Humpback Rock tend to be quite short, probably as a consequence of the difficulty of carving on the greenstone summit. “ART 45,”  “MICKEY,” “N.H.G. Nov 20 1943,” “Victor 7-3-80,” “J.W. Wade.” Inscriptions here may be seen as a sign of a successful hike, but also as a claim to belong to a tradition o

f successful hikers. In a vertical pattern of stacked names we read “TOM, MEG, Lori, HANNAH, 09.” Again, there are heart symbols and relationship inscriptions, primarily of recent date: a heart symbol links SKW and KM, the initials JJ are inside a heart, and there are various inscriptions of the nature “MH + CS.” At the very edge of the cliff, a spray-painted “Jump Here” text shows the joking,  irreverent, anti-authority nature of modern graffiti.

Modern graffiti and inscriptions in the Shenandoah Valley take their cue from existing forms and then alter them. I visited Natural Bridge on March 8th, 2014, to seek out what the historic site claims is an inscription by George Washington, made when he surveyed this part of Virginia as a young man. Instead of a “GW” however, I first discovered a “GH” inscription about one hundred yards before the bridge. Water and wind erosion under the bridge have erased most historic inscriptions at the site, and it appears that the site owners have regularly tried to remove graffiti as well. I say this because on the mile-long interpretative trail behind the bridge, I discovered inscriptions dated mostly to 2012 and 2013. These inscriptions are superficial, made perhaps with a key, and they number in the hundreds. Nearly all of these inscriptions were simple two-letter initials or a relationship status indicated by a plus sign between two sets of initials. The natural rock formations and artificial rock walls along this trail are comprised of dense limestone, which makes inscriptions difficult; but visitors have found a way past this obstacle by carving their initials on tree trunks as well. The inscription tradition then has migrated not only through time but also across material. I found no reason to believe that the “GW” inscription at Natural Bridge was indeed made by George Washington, and the emphasis on this belief is again part of a poor historical reading of inscriptions. The earliest inscriptions I discovered at the site were from the late nineteenth century (one dated as early as 1855), but these were only a few in number. Because of the depth of these aged inscriptions, they must have been made by hammer and chisel, perhaps by people familiar with those tools. These inscriptions follow the pattern of the late nineteenth century in using a first name (sometimes just initials) as well as a surname.

The history of Goodwin’s Cave near Salem, Virginia, demonstrates the potentially destructive nature of graffiti in this recent era. The cave was known perhaps as early as the late 18th century and it seems likely that historic inscriptions from the 19th century once could be found on its walls. But water erosion and vandalism have destroyed any early signs of human visitation. The earliest inscriptions I found in a visit on March 24, 2014, dated only to the 1970s, although most dates were illegible and so some of the legible names could have been created in earlier years. In the 1970s and 1980s, the cave was a well-known and heavily trafficked college party spot. The remnants of dozens of colors of spray paint as well as shards from hundreds of glass beer bottles indicate the extent of the festivities. For the past few decades, a gated entrance has kept most unwanted traffic out of the cave, while local speleologists, backed by the cave owner, have performed an extensive cleanup of the site. The spray-paint graffiti was frequently vulgar. Twentieth-century visitors also took sledgehammers to the cave’s natural features and broke off stalactites for sale. Whereas the historic inscriptions of the early nineteenth century were finely made, well placed, and have in some instances been preserved, the most modern graffiti is wild, expressive, intentionally destructive, and created against the wishes of local authorities and property owners. To maintain the site, a succession of locked gates has been placed on the entrance, first in the 1930s and 1940s, and again after 1989.[1] Controlled access allows for visitation by supervised groups.

Similarly, the owners of Melrose have worked to keep modern vandals out, and they have actively sought to remove modern spray-paint graffiti. Efforts to remove modern writing in this cave and to protect Civil War-era inscriptions may explain the relative prevalence of the latter. Despite efforts to remove vulgar graffiti, Melrose Cave still has some late twentieth and early twenty-first century inscriptions. One reads “TOURIST TRAP BOURKE,” another is the common anarchist symbol “A” with a circle around it. Modern inscriptions here are distinguished by the lack of depth in the engraving. That is, modern inscriptions tend to only superficially scar the rock wall. They also carry less permanent meaning. A “HAPPY 79” at Melrose Cave could mean a number of things.

Prevention of graffiti in Virginia caves became an important issue in the state in the early 1980s.  The Virginia Cave Protection Act of 1979 provides caves legal protection from vandalism. The Virginia Cave Conservancy offered a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest of cave vandals. In October 1983, some 100 volunteers participated in an all-day cleanup project to remove graffiti from Virginia’s Fountain Cave. Local newspapers highlighted the good work of these “persistent restorationists” who worked with acid spray and scrub brushes to remove spray paint and “all but the historic references of man’s misuse of the cave.” While some nineteenth century signatures were left untouched on the cave walls, most modern writings were wiped away. The next year, cleanup efforts focused on the adjacent Grand Caverns, where volunteers spent the better part of a day collecting debris that accumulated over nearly two centuries of underground visitation. The Shenandoah Valley cave cleanup projects of 1983-1984 demonstrated a bias against modern graffiti, but also showed concern to preserve engraved signatures of important visitors, such as the former Presidents George Washington and James Madison. [2]

The selection of what kinds of historical writings we preserve demonstrates cultural biases. While the public has generally supported the preservation of nineteenth century historic inscriptions, some scholars have begun to question the removal of modern graffiti while simultaneously  recognizing the difficulty of determining its cultural value. Graffiti generally has a negative connotation. Because the cultural significance of historic graffiti is generally unrecognized, its removal is a real threat. The historic preservation movement and cultural heritage are biased toward high art and accepted forms of expression, generally excluding graffiti. It is possible, of course, for graffiti to be both art and a criminal offense. Samuel Oliver and Crichton Merrill have made a distinction between “acts of vandalism that affect preexisting heritage or cultural property” and “acts of vandalism that embody cultural significance.”  Heritage and history is cleansed of the former, because such acts remind us of our uglier side. But authentic historical narratives do not separate the bad from the good. Oliver and Merrill conclude that “The consistent sanitization of the material remnants of our present will inhibit its accurate interpretation in the future.”

While historic graffiti was once a demonstration of power and control, modern graffiti is an expression against it. The authority to write on public surfaces shifted over time. As literacy rates grew and markets led to prosperity and free time, common people began travelling for leisure and participating in a tradition that had once been limited to the relatively wealthy and to those within easy distance of distinctive features on the landscape. Historic inscriptions are a traditional form of cultural dialogue. Those who leave their marks first may feel that they are claiming the power of precedent, while imitators see themselves as contributing to a tradition or even improving upon earlier markings, in a game of one-up-manship. Removal of names, whether or not it is a socially acceptable practice, is a claim to control the dialogue and limit certain profane contributions. While the public generally supports the preservation of historic inscriptions and calls for the removal of modern graffiti, some historic graffiti toes the controversial line between acceptance as a historical source and rejection as modern vandalism. When writing was in the control of the elites, inscriptions were a sign of power. When, after the Civil War, literacy was common, inscriptions became a way for people to participate in the community and assert themselves as participants in tradition. Inscriptions in the twentieth century, however, were the work of deviants, and were seen to be destructive of community and tradition.

Although it seems unlikely that conventional aesthetics will change to support the preservation of modern graffiti, the study of historic inscriptions should work towards understanding the voice of those without power. Now, the interpretation of inscriptions at Natural Bridge is focused narrowly on George Washington. At Grand Caverns, tour guides only pause to show the signature of W.W. Miles, a Captain of the 14th Pennsylvania Calvary, while the signatures of privates go unnoticed. Fountain Cave is noted for its signature of Thomas Jefferson. Historic value, however, is not directly proportional to the inscriber’s age or to the former greatness of his or her political power.  Value can be found in the common and the everyday. Historic inscriptions can be read to determine patterns of social change, if the area of analysis is large enough to demonstrate sufficient inscriptions over time, and if the time studied is long enough to view patterns of change. In a study of inscriptions in Williamsburg, Ivor Noel Hume adds poignantly: “Just like the world’s big names, the little ones yearn to be remembered – openly through their progeny or their school yearbook, or secretly in far-flung historic places where immortaility seems better assured.”

All oral folklore is collective lore. It is passed on from one person to the next through performances, and it survives through re-telling. In the Shenandoah Valley, historic inscriptions inform folklore of the Civil War, and the war plays an integral role in shaping local identities. Tour guides, written pamphlets, and an onsite museum at Grand Caverns boast stories of Confederate soldier inscriptions at the cave. Stonewall Jackson, it is said, visited the cave, but did not leave an inscription. Damaged inscriptions are said to be the result of soldiers destroying names of their enemies. All of these stories may be true, but, if we are to truly understand the value of these inscriptions, we must recognize that there is more of a story here than allusions to soldiers and great men. Historic sites can deliberately include or exclude ideas or people, reflecting the ideology of those in power and control.


Some sources:

                [1] Ivor Noel Hume, “Lasting impressions: Graffiti as History” Colonial Williamsburg (Winter 1986/1987), 35-39. Quote 39.

                [2] Alan M. Forster, Samantha Vettese-Forster, and John Borland, “Evaluating the cultural significance of historic graffiti” Structural Suvey 30:1 (2012), 43-64.

                [3] Samuel Oliver and Crichton Merrill, “Graffiti at Heritage Places: Vandalism as Cultural Significance or Conservation Sacrilege?  Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture 4:1 (March 2011), 59-76. (72)

                [4] Information from Mary Sue Socky of the Blue Ridge Grotto, the Roanoke chapter of the National Speleological Society, who was kind enough to guide me through the cave.

                [5]Virginia Cave Commission, Cave Owner’s Newsletter, Issue Number 1, August 1981. (Patty Smith, “Grottoes Caves Hold Many Deep Mysteries” The Valley Banner, 4 Oct. 1983), Margie Shetterly “People undo harm of man” (Daily News-Record, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 21 October 1983) “Volunteers Assist in Cave ‘Clean-Up’”( 7 July 1984)

[6] Inside of a copy of Joseph Funk and Sonds, Harmona Sacra; Bein

g a Compilation of Genuine Church Music Comprising A Great Variety of Metres, All harmonized for Three Voices, Together with a copious explication of the principles of vocal music. (Singer’s Glen, 1860).

                [7] For a complete list of Civil War soldiers inscriptions that can be found at Grand Caverns, see “Civil War Names Found in Grand Caverns: Location of Civil War Signatures and Soldier Data at Grand Caverns Park,” Grand Caverns Park Archives, Grottoes, VA.

                [8] A date of “1870” penciled on the wall indicates that the graffiti was not immediately covered after the end of the war.

                [10] “Soldiers’ Names in Caverns Traced” 29 May 1934, and “Asks Data About Soldiers Whose Names Appear on Caverns Wall” 2 Febrary 1937, The Daily News-Record,  Massanutten Regional Library, Local History Collection file. Also, (News Leader, Oct 17, 1954)  General Jackson had “quartered his men here because it w

as a virtually impregnable underground fortress, a perfect hiding place from the Union troops then invading the Valley.” The eight listed in a 1934 article are as follows: “Capt. L.I. Carpenter, 4th Va. Infantry”, “B.Boyers, Co F., 6th Va. Regt.”, “C.F. Davis, Co. F., 6th Va. Cavalry, Apr. 5, 1863”, “J.C. Gilman, Co. A., 7th Va. Cavalry, Apr. 5, 1863”, “George Koontz, 1862”, “Joseph S. Moore, General Jones Brigade, April, 1863,” “John L. Rhodes, General Jones Brigade, April 1863”, “George W. Wigginton, Co. A., 7th Va. Cavalry, April 12 1863”.

[11] Carrie Hunter Willis and Etta Belle Walker, Legends of the Skyline Drive and the Great Valley of Virginia (Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1937), 59; “Soldiers’ Names in Caverns Traced” 29 May 1934, Newspaper Clipping, Massanutten Regional Library, Local History Collection.

                [12] Rockingham County Courthouse, Marriage bond, May 16, 1825.

                [13] Cindy Sondik Aron, Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

                [14] James S. Buckingham,  Autobiography of James Silk Buckingham  (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855).

                [15] Calvin Jones, Description of Wier’s Cave in Augusta County, Virginia, In a Letter from General Calvin Joes to Mr. ******** in North-Carolina; [Communicated to the Editor of the State, Raleigh, North Carolina.]   (Albany, New York: Henry C. Southwick, 1815).  Sections reprinted in American Farmer 3:35 (23 Nov. 1821), 273-274.   Another visitor from 1817 reported that the cave was 800 yards in length, not a mile and a half as had been previously noted in other publications. Joseph Sansom, Travels in Lower Canada with the Author’s Recollections of the Soil, and Aspect, the Moral, Habits, and Religious Institutions of That Country (London, Sir Richard Phillips and Co., 1820)., 104-106; R.L. Cooke, Description of Weyer’s Cave (Staunton, VA: Seminary Press, 1834); Portland Advertiser (Portland, Maine) Vol. xii, No. 91  (September 12, 1835);  Charles Cramer, Etwas uber de Nature Wunder in Nord America (St. Petersburg, Russia: 1837). Caroline Gilman, The Poetry of Travelling in the United States with additional Sketches by a Few Friends: and A Week Among Autographs by Rev. S. Gilman (New York: S. Colman, 1838).

                [16] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 310.  Fischer provides some additional context by explaining that traditional “time-ways” in Virginia included “killing time” through leisure, unlike, for example, the Puritan time-way which stressed preserving time and putting it to use.  This may provide part of the explanation for why Virginia’s in the early 19th century went on adventures and traveled to a cave. In their traditional “death ways” Virginians also sought to leave their name behind, to prove that they were someone of importance.  One might see parallels to an unmarked grave, for example, a powerful symbol or metaphor of unimportance.

                [17] Notes on the State of Virginia   (Richmond, VA: J.W. Randolph, 1853), 21.  Written 1781-1782.

                [18] Portland Advertiser (Portland, Maine) Vol. xii, No. 91  (September 12, 1835), New-England Weekly Review (Hartford, CT), November 24, 1828.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: